He comes in for a landing, the way he always does, without much finesse. Not that he doesn’t know how to land—he’s been doing it long enough, Lord knows—but he’s not much for showing off. Anyway, who is there to show off to? There’s only one person to witness the landing, and he’s not easily impressed.
“I hope you take better care when setting that thing down on rooftops,” the one witness says, observing the sleigh with a cocked eyebrow.
“I’d like to see you do better,” the sleigh driver chuckles, gathering his empty sacks. He hops of the sleigh, lightly for a man of his size, and attends to the nearest reindeer harness. The poor beasts look ready to collapse.
“Want me to help with that?”
“Nah,” he says taking the first harness off. “Not on your birthday. I’ve got my own help.”
He sticks two sausage-sized fingers in his mouth and blows a merry, twinkling whistle from between his teeth. Off in the distance, lights start to flicker on, just visible in the coming dawn. It is very early morning. In the distance, squeaky little yawns issue from snow-covered huts.
“Merry Christmas, Nick.”
“Happy birthday, Jesus. Couldn’t help but note that you’ve been very good this year.”
“I’m going for a record.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa, withdrawing from his cloak a flask set with emeralds and rubies. He had a twinkle in his eye that centuries and modernity were helpless to extinguish.
“Take a drink with an old man,” said Santa, unscrewing the cap. The flask misted ever so slightly in the arctic air. Off in the distance, the clatter of breakfast dishes and sizzling bacon sounded. Tea kettles began whining. It would be just minutes until one of the elves struck up the first instrument and then the music would continue till nightfall.
“A good year?” asked Jesus, taking the flask Santa passed to him. The flask was warm to the touch, and smelled of honey, spices and raisins.
“It was,” Santa said, wiping his mouth on a jingling sleeve. “Aye, it was. It’s always nice to find that some people still believe. Children, of course. More adults than you might think.”
“I know a thing or two about that.”
“Of course. I forgot who I was talking to. Forgive me.”
“Sure. That’s what I do.”
“That said,” mused Santa, taking the final harness off a reindeer and dropping it into the snow with a clatter. “There are fewer and fewer all the time.”
The reindeer sat their haunches down in the show, one by one. A few closed their eyes in sleepy contentment. The rest looked about with an expectant curiosity. Food was coming, they knew.
“You still have the name recognition,” Jesus noted. “That counts for something.”
“Humbug,” said Santa, which was as crass as he ever got. “A gimmick. A billboard. An ad campaign. The worst substitute for belief I know.”
“I understand completely,” said Jesus, and to Santa, it sounded like the saddest thing in the world.
“They still believe in you,” said Santa. “I see it everywhere.”
“I did not transcend time and space because I fancy being believed in, Nick,” said Jesus, sitting down in the snow. He did not say it like he was angry, or pouting. He just said it.
“You know how it is was people like me,” said Santa, sitting down next to Jesus and leaning up against Dasher’s flank. “We need to be believed in.”
“You have it better than you know,” said Jesus. “They may not believe you, but they have an understanding with you. Even the ones who don’t believe in you get what you’re offering.”
“If they did, the parents wouldn’t eat the cookies before I got there,” grumbled Santa.
“You know what I mean.”
“I do,” said Santa. “I have a … a …”
“Ah. There it is.”
“An overused term,” Jesus admitted, chuckling. “But it’s true. Everyone has a relationship with you. An honest exchange. They actually get your offer. When people decide not to believe in you, they know exactly what they’re saying no to.”
“You sound jealous.”
“You know me better than that.”
“So is it better to be believed in with no real relationship, or to have a relationship without belief?” Santa asked. By now, the sun was fully up.
The first of the elves had struck up “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” on the fiddle and a few voices squeaked along in delight.
Jesus laughed, and stood. “You know your problem?” he said. “Too many dichotomies. Naughty or nice. Believed in or loved. Your life is far too simple up here, old man.”
“Nah,” said Santa. “It’s just one of the perks of not being real.”
“And the downside of being as real as I am is that belief exists on a scale,” said Jesus. “I love them, and I love their belief, such as it is. But there is more.”
“They’ll understand one day,” said Santa. “When are you planning to get on that, by the way?”
“Come on. Give me a hint.”
“You do your job. I’ll do mine.”
“Fine. Want to stay for Christmas? The missus has her turkey down pat.”
“I’ve got a birthday dinner waiting upstairs, Nick,” said Jesus. “But I got you something.”
Jesus produced from the folds of his robe a small black rectangle, thin as a wafer.
“Not one of those.”
“They have their uses.”
“They’re not my brand, Jesus. Kids ask for them—they call it the “5” or the “5s” and they want it with some sort of unlimited plan. I just give them a puppet.”
“If you hold down the button you can talk to it. Ask it where you’re at. Keep track of how many houses you have left.”
“I’ll try it. Next year.”
“That’s all I ask.”
Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella was entering its cutesy third verse: “Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping; Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!” and the elves had at least four harmonies going.